A soldier’s death leaves his family rooted in the Kentucky town he chose

Shane and Samantha Barnes with their daughters, Amelia, second from right, and Katherine. (Photo provided)

HOPKINSVILLE — More than 6,000 miles from home, U.S. Army helicopter pilot Shane Barnes texted with his wife, Samantha, about her weekend plans in Hopkinsville with their girls, Amelia, who is 5, and Katherine, who will be 2 in a few months.

It was Friday, Nov. 10, the day before Veterans Day. Samantha told Shane that his parents, Michael and Kelly Barnes, wanted to help her pull out decorations so they could get the house ready for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Shane and Samantha Barnes with their daughters, Amelia, center, and Katherine. (Photo provided)

They had been to Amelia’s school, University Heights Academy, earlier that day for a ceremony honoring veterans. Hundreds of current and former service members, including Shane and Samantha, were featured in photographs that lined the school’s hallways. Samantha had also been in the Army and flew helicopters before leaving the service as her family grew.

Samantha sent Shane photos from the school. She told him a teacher wanted both of them to come speak at the program in 2024. He responded with a smiley face in sunglasses.

In a flurry of messages between the Middle East and Kentucky, Shane told Samantha she ought to go find a restaurant that would treat her to a meal on Veterans Day.

“Make sure you get thanked for your service,” he texted.

Tragic news

The next day, Samantha and the girls joined Shane’s parents for a late lunch at Camo Caravan, a veteran-owned restaurant in Hopkinsville that was serving free cheeseburger sliders and fries to veterans and active-duty military.

Shane hadn’t been responding to text messages since the previous night. Samantha thought his unit with the elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment had temporarily lost cell service — or maybe he was too busy to respond.

As she sat in the restaurant with her daughters and in-laws, Samantha received a phone alert from the Ring doorbell at home a few miles northwest of town.

She looked at the live video and saw berets.

Two men in Army uniforms stood outside her front door.

She turned the phone toward her father-in-law.

As fear spread from Samantha to Michael to Kelly, she stepped outside the restaurant to use the audio feed connecting her phone to the doorbell camera. The men asked her to come home immediately.

At the house, Michael took the children inside and waited while Samantha and Kelly received the news.

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Shane Barnes, 34, died Friday, Nov. 10, during an in-flight training exercise over the Mediterranean Sea. He was among five Fort Campbell soldiers who were killed.

“The MH-60 Blackhawk was conducting aerial refueling training when the aircraft experienced an in-flight emergency, resulting in the crash,” the Department of Defense would announce days later. Military officials said there was no indication of hostile activity.

When they told Michael that his son’s body was not recovered, he wondered if Shane was still out there. Maybe he was in his life preserver, adrift at sea. Was he possibly alive, waiting to be rescued?

He was not, said the Army officials who went to Shane’s house to notify the family.

An early calling

Shane grew up in Sacramento, California.

Early on, he showed an interest in military service. He wore a flight suit from his paternal grandfather, who served in the Air Force, for Halloween in the fourth grade.

By the time he was in high school, Shane was one of the biggest kids on the football team at Jesuit High School. His brother and best friend Josh, two years younger, also attended Jesuit. Their mom worked for the school, helping direct campus ministries. Their father was a correctional officer.

Shane graduated from high school in 2007 and went to Gonzaga University on an ROTC scholarship. He turned down an opportunity to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in favor of a more traditional college experience. He majored in English but his focus was on military studies. As it became more evident he was headed for a career in the service, his mother worked through her fears.

“I realized that we need men and women of character, integrity and faith in those leadership positions,” she said. “And if God was calling Shane to that life … I wouldn’t stand in the way.”

Kelly also never forgot her son’s generous nature, a trait she saw when he was very young.

She recalled a day when she was driving in Sacramento with the windows down. Shane was about 4 years old. They came to stop beside a man on the street holding a sign. Shane asked his mom, what did the sign say? She told him the man was homeless and wanted help.

Suddenly, Shane tried to get the man’s attention through the open window. He wanted to talk to him. Kelly was worried for their safety and drove away quickly. She turned and asked Shane what he was trying to tell the man.

“We have an extra room at our house. He could live with us,” Shane said.

In the days after they learned Shane wasn’t coming home from his last deployment, his parents and his wife told stories about Shane to people who had never known him. It felt important to them to make others aware of how he lived and what he valued.

His priorities for his career and his daughters had everything to do with four generations of his family coming to live in Hopkinsville, Kentucky — a place none of them had known a decade earlier.

Getting started

Shane Barnes lifts his wife, Samantha, in an embrace on her return to Fort Campbell from an overseas deployment. (Photo provided)

After graduating from Gonzaga in 2011, Shane began training to be an Army aviator at Fort Rucker, Alabama.

That summer he had his first date with another ROTC graduate learning to fly helicopters. Samantha had graduated from the University of Portland in Oregon, where she majored in philosophy.

Before he asked Samantha out, Shane called his brother for advice. Where should he take her? Give her choices, said Josh.

It was around the Fourth of July in Enterprise, Alabama, and Shane asked Samantha if she’d like to go out to eat at a fancy restaurant. Or would she rather do something fun?

Fun sounded better, she said. So he took her to play miniature golf and then picked up a sack of burgers and headed to a drive-in movie in his truck. Samantha said it was a Disney double feature, probably “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Cars 2.” She laughs now and says she is a little fuzzy on what they watched.

When they finished flight school, Shane was stationed at South Korea. She went to Fort Lewis, Washington. But Shane saw his future with Samantha.

Establishing roots

In December 2012, Shane was on leave for the holidays and back in the United States. He took Samantha with him to Sacramento and proposed to her in front of the Christmas tree at his family’s home.

It would be another year before they could be married at a church in her hometown in Oregon.

But wanting to seal their marriage ahead of the ceremony, they found the only state that allows for a double-proxy marriage. On Jan. 22, 2013, the state of Montana declared them officially married while she was on the West Coast and he was overseas.

By August of 2013, they were both stationed at South Korea. It would take more than two years to get back to the U.S.

In February of 2016, they were sent to Fort Campbell and picked a home in Clarksville, Tennessee. Soon after they arrived, she was deployed to Iraq for nine months and missed his graduation from “Green Platoon,” a training program for any soldier seeking to enter the 160th SOAR.

Members of the 160th are known as the Night Stalkers because the aviation regiment was formed to carry out stealth operations, sometimes in the cover of darkness. Shane saw his work with the 160th as protecting people he loves from evil.

The 160th grew out of a failed attempt in April 1980 to rescue American hostages held in Tehran, Iran. U.S. officials decided to train an elite group of helicopter pilots and crew members to carry out a second attempt. Although Iran released the hostages on the day President Ronald Reagan took office, the new unit that would eventually become the 160th was taking shape. Its first combat mission was during the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983, six years before Shane was born.

Shane and Samantha’s first daughter, Amelia, was born in February 2018. They call her Millie. Katherine was born four years later. She goes by Katie.

Shane and Samantha Barnes started dating in the summer of 2011 while they were both in flight school at Fort Rucker, Alabama. She later left the service as their family grew with two daughters. (Photo provided)

A new hometown

In between the two births, the family moved to Hopkinsville. They bought a home just outside the city limits from a member of Shane’s unit who was leaving for another assignment.

“Shane called dibs on the house,” Samantha said. They had visited the place for parties and loved the rural setting. It had a pool and a pool house. Shane thrived with room to smoke meat and cook homemade pizzas every Friday night.

And he took more steps to make Kentucky their permanent home. He gave up his commission as a captain and became a chief warrant officer, ensuring that he would be able to remain in the 160th. Had he not done that, he would have earned promotions and been forced to take on new assignments, his family said.

He never wanted to “ride a desk,” said Michael.

Shane and Samantha Barnes started dating in the summer of 2011 while they were both in flight school at Fort Rucker, Alabama. She later left the service as their family grew with two daughters. (Photo provided)

Next, Shane and Samantha worked on getting his parents to relocate. During visits, Samantha would seemingly take them down random county roads to have a look around. In fact, she was hoping to get them interested in a new home.

When they did decide to move, it took more than they might have expected — selling an RV, giving household goods away, packing up his parents, too, to join them. And Kelly needed to retire from a job she loved but one that had changed during the pandemic.

In August 2021, they moved into a home near Shane and Samantha. Suddenly, there were four generations of Barneses in Kentucky.

Shane had already taken to life in his new hometown when his parents arrived. He was always up for a community event — Summer Salute in Hopkinsville, the Ham Festival in Cadiz, a distillery on the weekend. His favorite restaurant was The Local Irish Pub in downtown Hopkinsville. He said they knew how to do a “proper Guinness pour.”

Kelly said she felt “embraced immediately” by the community. She got involved with the Newcomers and Neighbors club. Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church became their new church.

There were adjustments, though. They were not used to a slower pace, where a grocery store clerk might carry on a casual conversation with customers while slowly slicing a special order at the deli counter. Michael jokes that Sacramento had one and a half seasons all year while Hopkinsville has “six seasons in a few minutes.” And not many outsiders are prepared for Western Kentucky’s humidity in August.

But because of Shane and the decisions he made about his career, his family has a place that feels like home even though he will no longer be with them.

“Because we were invited and because we said, ‘yes,’ we have more than two years of memories with Shane and his girls that we otherwise wouldn’t have had,” said Kelly.

Samantha can’t know what the future holds long-term. But for now, she says she cannot imagine living anywhere else.

Shane gave her the kind of place where a person feels comfortable hanging their photos on all the walls because they know they are staying.

“He made that possible,” she said.

When military officials announced the deaths of the five Fort Campbell soldiers, they listed Shane as being from Sacramento. Kelly says her son would want people to know that he was from Hopkinsville.

Memorial service

The memorial service for Shane Barnes will be at 11 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 2, at Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church. His brother Josh will give the eulogy. The service is open to the community, his family said. There will be another service later when a headstone for Shane is placed at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

The family has suggested these organizations for anyone wanting to make a memorial gift:

  • Big Sky Bravery: It provides post-deployment decompression programs for active duty special operations forces. www.bigskybravery.org

  • St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital: Its mission is lifesaving work to find cures and means of prevention for childhood cancer and other pediatric, life-threatening diseases, as well as providing treatment and housing for families served. www.stjude.org

  • Jesuit High School: A Sacramento Catholic high school that provides young men with a life-building experience and delivers an academically rigorous college preparatory education to prepare graduates for lives of leadership and service.© 2023 Hoptown Chronicle | All rights reserved

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Jennifer P. Brown, Hoptown Chronicle

Jennifer P. Brown is the publisher, editor and co-founder of Hoptown Chronicle. She has been writing about Hopkinsville for 35 years — first as a reporter and editor for the Kentucky New Era for three decades and more recently as an independent journalist. Brown co-chairs the national advisory board to the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky and is governing board president for the Kentucky Historical Society. She is a co-founder of the Kentucky Open Government Coalition. She serves on the Community Advisory Board of WKMS, the public radio station at Murray State University. Brown earned the Bachelor of Science in Journalism at Murray and the MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Goucher College, Baltimore.

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